Book Review – From Scratch: Writings in Music Theory by James Tenney

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James Tenney (1934-2006) was a composer and computer music pioneer.   If you’re at all interested in the history of music technology and its development, his writings are essential.


by Warren Burt, July 2015


James Tenney (1934-2006) was a composer, performer, theorist, and computer music pioneer.  He was one of the important composers of the later 20th century, although he is not well known.  University of Illinois Press has recently brought out a definitive collection of Tenney’s writings in music theory, which includes a number of articles about his pioneering work with computer music in the early 1960s, as well as his writings on the application of gestalt-perception to music, and his later explorations in microtonality.  Tenney had been preparing the book for publication between 2003 and 2006, but his death put the project on hold.  Colleagues and friends completed the book (although if you follow the footnotes, you can see in a few spots where he left things unfinished), and the resulting book is a labor of love, as well as a very important contribution to contemporary musical thinking.  For many years, Tenney’s work had circulated among small circles of the avant-garde in mimeographed and photocopied form – I remember my first reading of his Meta + Hodos, in the late 1960s. on one such mimeograph – and later, with small scale publication by collectivist publishers such as Peter Garland, with his Soundings Press, and Larry Polansky and Jody Diamond, with their Frog Peak Music.  This book marks the first time that Tenney’s theoretical writing is available under one cover from a major publisher.  And it’s about time.

The collection is called “From Scratch,” and there’s a good reason for that.  Tenney was one of those people who took nothing for granted, and wanted to truly begin from ground zero in the understanding of what is it that goes on when we hear music.  His understanding of traditional music theory was that it was mostly a series of recipes that described what certain composers had already done, and that its status as a “theory” as in the scientific sense of the term, with predictive value, and quantifiable results, was loose at best.  For all his life, Tenney was driven by the desire to find out what really happened when we hear music.  How does music perception work?  What is going on inside the brain when we hear a musical phrase, a musical harmony? As he wrote in “Pre-Meta+Hodos” (1959) “The necessary thing now is to start if possible at the very beginning, to clear the mind of loose ends whose origins are forgotten; loose ends and means become habits.  What do we hear when we listen, what do we really hear when listening.  This means too, what do we hear first and what later after learning the words. The substance of it is SOUND, the essence, TIME.  Sound and Time.  Sound in time sounding time.”

 His first real effort in this direction was his Master’s Thesis from the University of Illinois, called “Meta + Hodos” and it dealt with the application of ideas from gestalt psychology to musical perception.  It really is one of the foundational texts of contemporary musical thinking, and a lot of the contemporary work in music psychology and perception has been based on its premises.  The applying of ideas from psychology, cognition and other branches of the science of perception is one of the themes in the book, threading through most of the essays in the book, including Meta + Hodos (1961); META Meta+ Hodos (1975); Hierarchical Temporal Gestalt Perception in Music: A Metric Space Model (1980); Review of ‘Music as Heard’ by Thomas Clifton (1985); and the Darmstadt Lecture (1990). 

Another area of interest for Tenney, and one that might be of most immediate interest to SoundBytes readers, was his work with computers.  He was one of the earliest composers to seriously engage with the computer as a musical instrument.  He had studied at the University of Illinois with Lejaren Hiller (1924-1994), the first person to program a computer to produce a fully realized musical composition (‘Illiac Suite’ (1957)), and after leaving Illinois, secured a position at Bell Telephone Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, working with Max Matthews (1926-2011) who was the first person to write a program for a computer to synthesize sound (Music, which became Music II, III, IV, and V, and eventually CSound). To read Tenney’s “Computer Music Experiences, 1961-64” is to go back to those days and relive, step by step, what it was like to be inventing the very bases of the technology that we take for granted these days.   For example, Tenney writes about his discovery of the importance of the use of very tightly limited random noise to modulate frequency and amplitude of tones as a way of getting a more “realistic” tone.   This is a technique that can still be used with profit even today.  He also describes early experiments with frequency modulation (this many years before John Chowning’s work, which Yamaha licensed), and with working with various kinds of random number generators in creating what he came to call “Ergodic” forms – forms which are not directional, do not evolve, and which, over their course, visit most or all of the possibilities implied by the body of material given at the start of the piece.  A close reading of this essay, and its follow-ups, “On the Physical Correlates of Timbre” (1965) and “Excerpts from ‘An Experimental Investigation of Timbre’” (1966), should be essential reading for any student of music technology today, if only to reveal the advanced nature of thinking about music that was present at the very beginning of the field.  And his later work in computer-assisted composition is covered very well in “About Changes: Sixty-Four Studies for Six Harps” (1987).

Another area of investigation for Tenney was the history and analysis of 20th century art music, and two essays “Form in Twentieth-Century Music” (1970) and “The Chronological Development of Carl Ruggles’s Melodic Style” (1977) are good examples of those.  For those who find 20th century art music challenging, or baffling, in what seems like its blatant disregard for 19th century classical or commercial pop models of musical structure, the first essay is a model of clear explanation of what is usually going on in 20th century art music, and why it is that way.  The second article is remarkable in that it’s one of the first applications of computer statistical analysis to a body of earlier 20th century modernist music.  In this case, the use of the computer is as much “on trial” as is the analysis itself – can computer statistical analyses really tell us anything new about music.  In this case, the answer is a resounding yes, as the progression and developments of Ruggles’s (1876-1971) style becomes very clear under Tenney’s analytical techniques.

The final area of investigation that Tenney is known for is his investigation of tuning, and microtonality.  His major essay in this area is “John Cage and the Theory of Harmony” (1983) which might seem like a contradiction at first.  After all, Cage is hardly known for his traditional harmonic thinking, and his anarchic musical thinking is the bete noire of many a more traditional music theorist.  But, as Tenney points out, it’s only when we seriously consider Cage’s treating of all parameters of music equally (pitch, duration, timbre, register, texture, etc) that we can actually then begin to make a theory of harmony which relates to what we are actually hearing when we hear two tones simultaneously, which is, of course, the beginning of harmony.  As a student at Illinois, Tenney had also worked with the just-intonation pioneer Harry Partch (1900-1974) and Partch’s thinking about the importance of frequency ratios as the basis for harmonic thinking specifically, and musical tuning in general, was a huge influence on Tenney.  However, unlike Partch, Tenney felt that our ears had a fair range of tolerance for “mis-tuning” of intervals.  That is, while accepting that, for example, the ratio 5/4 is the ideal way for a “major 3rd” to be tuned, he felt that our ears were sufficiently tolerant that we could accept the way a “major 3rd” is tuned on the piano (1/6th of a semitone sharper that the 5/4 ratio) as still being part of that family of intervals that we heard as a “major 3rd.”  This led him to use various higher level equal temperaments, such as 72-tone equal temperament, in his “Changes” for 6 harps, and 24-tone equal temperament, in “Flocking” for two pianos. 

None of this writing is “easy.”  Although Tenney’s writing style is exemplary in its clarity, in most of these articles he’s dealing with very complex things.  The clarity makes the complexity understandable, but this is writing to be read slowly, savouring each point as it occurs.  Still, if you want to encounter one of the major thinkers of 20th century music, James Tenney’s writing is worth getting to know, and if you’re at all interested in the history of music technology and its development, his writing is essential.



James Tenney: From Scratch: Writings in Music Theory

edited by Larry Polansky, Lauren Pratt, Robert Wanamaker, and Michael Winter

University of Illinois Press, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-252-03872-3

$80 USD Cloth


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